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No Hurry: The EPA's Timeline for Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Since the Environmental Protection Agency first announced that it would seek to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, various business groups and opponents of climate change science have whipped themselves into a frenzy over the EPA's supposed ability to paralyze the economy by suddenly placing draconian restrictions on GHGs.

Nevermind that the EPA has shown no inclination to act quickly on its new power, the result of an "endangerment finding" by the Supreme Court that said carbon dioxide and other gases could harm humans. The EPA's opponents launched a preemptive attack last year, headed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who wants a Congressional amendment passed that will block any EPA regulation.

Perhaps in response to this political maneuvering, the EPA has written a letter to Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (update: corrected, see comments below), a Democrat, laying out its timeline for regulation. This is the first big announcement the EPA has made since it said in December that it officially considers CO2 a threat -- an announcement that was itself likely politically motivated by the Copenhagen climate conference.

You can read the full letter here, but I've boiled down the timeline to its essentials here:

  • 2010: No regulation this year, but new vehicle standards to account for greenhouse gases
  • 2011, first half: Under 400 large emitters currently regulated by the Clean Air Act must start addressing GHGs
  • 2011, second half: Other large emitters (likely sources like coal plants and oil refineries) are phased in
  • 2011 - 2013: Yet more sources come under regulation if they emit "well over" 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases yearly
  • 2016 onward: EPA begins regulating small emitters
A few points about this timeline. First, it gives the EPA some breathing room against its (mainly Republican) foes, but 2011 is not a terribly long way off to actually begin to regulate GHG sources. Technology to capture CO2 emissions from coal plants, for example, could be a decade from becoming widely available.

The EPA's top administrator, Lisa Jackson, writes in the letter that it's not clear what technologies large emitters will use, but that the EPA will work to identify key tech.

The decision to stick with very large emitters is also quite strategic -- the EPA had originally proposed a threshold of 25,000 tons of emissions per year to regulate to avoid antagonizing small businesses, but it now says it wants to stay well above even that number.

What's not clear is who the smaller emitters that the EPA is proposing to regulate after 2016 are, but the agency will probably seek to keep to its threshold of 25,000 tons. However, this is one of the key points that allows legal challenges; the Clean Air Act doesn't contain any language on limits.

However, Jackson writes in the letter that the agency wouldn't pursue limits if it didn't think it could defend them in court. If that's true, it's up to Congressional Republicans to find a way to stop the EPA's plans. With this timeline, it becomes a bit harder for them to argue for urgency.

[Image credit: Arnold Paul / Wikimedia Commons]